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How to be an Air Traffic Controller 101

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By: Stacy Clark, 2001

Note: Although this was originally written for VFR tower control much of it applies to all the ATC options.

After a particularly busy session one day a trainee asked me, “How do I do it, you make it look so easy?”

This was my answer:

Being a controller comes down to those Nike commercials you’ve seen on TV… “Just Do It.” Simply put, you have no choice. The aircraft will keep coming whether or not it’s convenient for you at the time. As such, you need to make a conscious effort to foster those skills that are required for the job. You must learn to multitask. Whether that be writing and talking simultaneously, listening to two or three things at the same time, scanning the runway while thinking of your next move(s), observing what the other controller’s doing and how it fits into your (or their) overall plan, etc. Develop good habits in your strip, pad or board marking, in your scan pattern (pad/board, runway[s], scope, sky), in your basic phraseology and standard procedures. Listen actively. If someone reads something back wrong it is your job to catch it. If another controller misses something and you see it or hear it, it is your job to correct it. Control your frequencies. Talk to whom “you” need to talk to when you need to talk to them. You don’t need to answer each call as they happen. Prioritize. Work from the runway out; without the runway you’ve got squat. Learn your cutoffs, and then learn your outs…your safety valves, so to speak.

We all know that somewhat unjustified phrase “typical civil servant” and the negative connotation it brings forth in our minds. Never work from that angle while controlling. Never say to yourself, “Ah, its good enough, it’s all the same.” Working that way is nothing but laziness, pure and simple. And, it will generally bite you in the back-side somewhere down the line. Never be an “Air Traffic Reactor.” You are an “Air Traffic Controller” – control – being the operative word. However, don’t over-control. Doing that is just as bad as not controlling enough. Always lay as much responsibility on the pilot as possible under the individual circumstance; take into account: wind, visibility, sky coverage, weather phenomena, speeds, aircraft performance, altitudes, pilot’s voice, etc. Think of these things as “tools”…because they are! Make your decisions and go with them, if they need changing along the line…do it, and do it then. ATC is a fluid game in practice, not highly rigid and inflexible. The decisions you make must always be the “best” for the overall picture. That is a learned skill that will come with time. As you gain experience, you will be able to see what needs to be done further out.

Though you may quietly have fear within you initially (as a developmental and as a newly rated controller) that will subside in time. NEVER transmit that fear over the radio to the pilots…they can smell it from a hundred miles away. They will begin to question you and your airspace will go sideways in a hurry. Never get angry, if you do, you will become fixated on that particular pilot and your pattern will suffer. Don’t forget the phrase “Remain outside delta airspace and standby.” Use it only as a last resort however. Try and avoid using “360’s” as a way of building space as generally the problem will come right back at you in 359.5 degrees, try suggested headings, 270’s to base/final, pointing the aircraft to a landmark, or to a point, etc. Always try and keep things flowing toward the airport. Use mind trip switches, i.e.: “report 3 miles,” “report xxx.” And then make an effort to call them before they call you. Understand you cannot make a pilot see another aircraft. It is ludicrous to play the “I’m not gonna clear you until you report him in sight” game. Sequence him and clear him…period. Then make sure it works. After a while those things that used to spin you around will become second nature and you will know what to do…because you’ve seen it a hundred times before. Learn from your mistakes and make mental notes to not do “that” again. SIT-DOWN, don’t stand up unless you absolutely need to. If there’s no chair then stand in one place… do not pace. Pacing only makes you “feel” busier than you usually are…it also wears out the carpet. If you “feel” something’s not right, it probably isn’t. Listen to that little voice inside your head…it’s trying to tell you something. Develop those gut feelings, for example, a pilot tells you he has the guy he’s supposed to follow in sight and your gut tells you “He’s seeing the wrong guy,” you’re probably right.

Know the 7110.65 and the AIM…know the exceptions. Know your local procedures and LOA’s cold. Know your approaches. Know your type aircraft and wake turbulence. Know your approach categories and how that fits in with the minimums. Learn and know those things that “seem” like just stuff that you memorize to pass the tests. Know the Departure Procedures/SIDs and arrival routes/approaches for nearby airports and realize how those things affect “your” facility, and how your facility affects theirs. I strongly recommend getting a flight simulator (Microsoft) and “fly” them, fly the airways, know what headings get you from your airport to aiairspace chartrport XYZ. Go flying as much as possible with local pilots. Not only does it build rapport but you’ll also learn volumes. Know your airspace from the pilot’s point of view. Observe from inside the cockpit what they are doing, and when. Understand their procedures and priorities. Know more than your fellow controllers; know more than the pilots. Know the minutiae. What does a Centurion and a Cardinal have in common…? (No wing struts, except for the original Centurion). What does a Cardinal and a Cherokee have in common? (Stabilator). What does a Cherokee and an Ercoupe have in common? (Designed by the same guy). Why is a Citabria called that…? (Spell it backwards…). And so on. Little tidbits like these may seem way beyond the pale, but these little extra bits of knowledge combined with a solid foundation are what make an average controller an excellent one. It’s your choice what type of controller you want to be. It’s in your hands…and so are the pilots and passengers. Good luck.